In our ever changing world, society’s view on marriage is split and unclear. The common solution by nearly 50% of unhappy couples is to divorce. The other alternative is to put up with the disappointing relationship and learn how to cope with the emptiness by filling up with alcohol, work or food. This emotional stress has an impact on our physical and mental well-being. Evidence suggests that marital stress can result in psychosomatic symptoms by depressing the immune system. This includes high blood pressure, depression, physical tension, migraines and insomnia to name a few. This is correlated with evidence that a life of loving, positive and supportive energy directed to others, improves physical and emotional health.
So, can couples counselling really help?
Deciding to go for couple counselling can be a daunting decision. However, most couples who decide to enter into it, do so because they need to feel they‘ve tried everything to save their marriage/relationship. This in itself is an immediate short-term boost. This is partly down to a sense of relief that something is finally being done but mainly because our partner’s cooperation is validation that they care.
We are biologically created to live with each other and yet, relationships can often bring much pain and despair. The relationship we have with our partners is like no other. It is after all the person we sleep with. It can bring out the best and the worst in each other, the tenderest moments and the most vindictive behaviour. It’s who we are most intimate with, or meant to be!
One of the most common fears around couple counselling is that the counsellor will take sides. Perhaps the whole scenario reminds the participants of being a sibling, in rivalry with their partner and ‘mum’ (the counsellor) will be judging the situation. It soon becomes clear however that the counsellor's responsibility is to the relationship and that both parties will receive equal time, respect and understanding.
When couples first come for couple counselling, they may be asked how they met. They might say something like, "We met at work", "in a bar" or "online". But it’s not the where that’s important, it’s the how. The counsellor wants to know how they were attracted to each other. By listening to popular songs such as Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud’ where he states, "People fall in love in mysterious ways, even by the touch of a hand" confirms falling in love can literally be something as instant as a touch of a hand or a look, a smile or a tone of voice. There’s a knowing, something familiar seemingly at first glance. For some reason they feel comfortable with each other, as if they have known each other for years.
But not all encounters have the same intensity. Others may have a more prolonged courtship, a hesitant, almost charming melancholy. Characters such as Henry Wilcox, played by Anthony Hopkins in Howards End or Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’ Diary have this kind of awkward, yet moving energy. When we begin to understand our attractions and chemistry that can come from just a touch, we will have the first clues to our psychological desires that lay the foundations of our relationships.
Couple counselling can help make sense of this romantic love phase, or more commonly known as the ‘honeymoon’ period. The reason we have such good feelings at the beginning of a relationship is because unconsciously we believe we have found the missing part of ourselves; our other half, a chance to be nurtured and to regain our original wholeness. We call this phenomenon ‘Projection’. This term describes the way we can take a disowned or missing part of ourselves and attribute it to our partner. For example, someone who suppresses their anger can attribute it to their partner. The darker side to someone’s personality can appeal to the other for reasons such as, reminding them of a parent who was an angry, emotional person. It might even help them get in touch with their own denied emotions. As a child, perhaps they had learnt to mask their anger and hostility in order to protect themselves from their mother or father's temper. But now as an adult this has left them half a person. Without being able to feel and express strong feelings, they felt empty inside. Now the other person can feel complete again because their partner fills this void. Of course, therapy will help the individual find the missing part and accept that anger can be a healthy emotion and necessary.
So during this romantic phase, which usually lasts two or three years, we assume that our partner will make up for the deprivation of our childhood. We believe all we have to do is form a close, lasting relationship. After a while we realise that our strategy isn’t working; we are in love, but we are not whole.
We begin to see our partner’s negative traits and this can make us angry, then the power struggle begins. Both individuals are searching for ways to retain their wholeness and they still believe that their partners can make them happy and whole. The difference at this stage is that the partner is perceived as withholding love. Ironically, in the hope that if they shout loud enough and provoke and argue their grievances, our partners will respond with love and warmth. These are childhood longings. If we shout and protest, our parents will respond to us with a cuddle and a knowing of what we need. Of course as adults that doesn’t work and on a rational level we might wonder, "why didn’t you just say this, why didn’t just ask for what you need?".
Our childhood wounds that still need healing start to play out in our relationships. This is our unfinished business that needs attending to and indeed needs to be grieved for. These wounds will always leave their scars; however, if worked through in a therapeutic way, we can learn to have compassion for who we are and how our childhood experience has shaped us.
So now our unconscious mind is becoming conscious and we can begin to make sense of what is happening in the relationship. We can now see our partners as equals, not our care givers. We can let go of the power struggle.
Couple counselling can help partners take responsibility for communicating their needs and desires. You learn to value your partner’s needs as much as your own. You can acknowledge theirs and your own negative traits and learn to search within yourself your own strengths and abilities.
Couple counselling really can help. Most relationships will get strained at some time, resulting in failure to function in a healthy, optimal way. Negative patterns occur due to a number of reasons, including insecure attachment, jealousy, anger, poor communication, ill health and so on. However, when couples come for counselling it is usually in a crisis, a last resort to save their relationship. This level of energy and emotion can help to mobilise the therapy and gives each partner the opportunity to say whatever they need to say. Being heard and actively listened to can feel so cathartic.
The role of the couple counsellor is to:
- Provide a safe and confidential space.
- Help each participant to be heard and hear themselves.
- To facilitate communication skills.
- To help identify old wounds which perhaps belong elsewhere and not in the present relationship.
- To foster a respectful, adult, equal style of being with each other.
- To normalise feelings and thoughts.
- To encourage and make conscious coping and self support strategies.
For more information on couple counselling or to book a session with me, call free on 0800 612 4426 or email me firstname.lastname@example.org.
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